Backpacking China: The top 20 places to visit
Backpacking around China is not the most relaxed way, that you can spent your holidays. To be honest: It can be a real challenge. On my seven weeks backpacking China, I smiled, I cried, I felt very often illiterate, went on fantastic hikes, got altitude sickness close to the Tibetan border and tasted lot’s of horrible food.
But if you look for an adventure, backpacking China can be a good option. Don’t get me wrong: I experienced China to be a safe backpacking country. Buses and trains can take you pretty much everywhere. The public transport system is cheap. It is easy to find affordable accommodation in most places. I managed to be able to travel on a daily budget of 15 to 20 Euros. And there is a lot to discover in China. But backpacking China meant to indulge into a completely different culture. Ever tried scorpions on a stick for dinner? Rabbit head? No? Don’t worry, you will get the opportunity while backpacking China. And that’s not the only weird thing, you might be able to try.
In China, I traveled mostly as a solo female traveler. That can be a little challenge. It is probably equally hard for a man or a woman traveling alone in China. Sometimes, you just might have the urge to share thoughts and to talk to someone, who understands your language, your feelings, and your way of thinking. But if you leave the beaten track, it can mean not to be able to talk to anyone for days. As soon as I left the tourist hot spots in China, I didn’t meet a lot of people backpacking.
But the good thing was: The travelers, that I met, were all very individual personalities of all ages and different countries. The superficial crowd of young party flashpackers hardly visits China. The reason: China is maybe not the best country for the first backpacking trip in your life. It’s not about drinks and music on white sandy beaches. Traveling China can be a little harder than that. But it’s manageable. And certainly very interesting. Here are my top 20 places to visit in China…
plus some advise about overland border crossing from China to Mongolia.
1. Beijing: The gateway to the eastern world
Beijing is definitely a must see while backpacking China. For most people it is the starting point of their backpacking trip. I wouldn’t say, that it was my favorite place in China. It is a little hard to like a city full of smog, traffic jam and more than 20 millions inhabitants. But I was happy to see the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace in Beijing, the night market and the frozen Mao in his Chairman Mao Memorial Hall. One thing not to miss for meat lovers: Beijing Duck in a good restaurant. You can easily spend a week just in Beijing. Three to four days were just enough to cover the main sights.
Arrival at the airport
- I arrived by plane in Beijing. My brother was waiting for me at the airport. We wanted to spent the first weeks backpacking in China together. It was late at night, around 2 am, when I arrived at the airport. My flight from Myanmar was late. There was no public transport going to the city center anymore. Be aware, that late night arrivals mean higher costs of transport to the city center. We took a taxi to our accommodation. The taxi driver didn’t speak English and was not able to read Chinese letter either. He had to ask a colleague first to be able to bring us to the right place. To my surprise, there seemed to be quite a few Chinese in China, that were not able to read or write Chinese letters.
- Be prepared to get scammed by taxi drivers. Our taxi driver was honest. But my brother was almost a little ashamed to admit, that had paid the double price at his arrival one day before and that the ride to the hostel had taken him ages. I heard, that taxi drivers often do detours with clueless tourists on the way to and from the airport to earn a bit more. If you don’t speak Chinese or don’t know Beijing, you almost don’t have a chance to understand, if you get scammed or not. But be prepared for an interesting bill and take it with a smile.
- Get more information about airport transportation.
- Find out more about Beijing metro.
- And get general information about Beijing.
Finding a hostel in Beijing in the Dongcheng district
- Our Hostel in Beijing was called Happy Dragon Courtyard Hostel. It was located in the Dongcheng district in Beijing and a very good option for backpackers on a budget. There is a metro stop close by, which makes it easy to get to all the Beijing sightseeing spots in a very easy way. Supermarkets, cheap restaurants, street food stalls, banks with ATMs and money exchange are all located close to the metro stop.
- There are quite a few backpacker hostels and budget places in the Dongcheng district in Beijing, where you can meet fellow travelers and where you find English-speaking hostel staff, that can help with useful information. That is the good thing about hostels: International travelers usually catch up there. Throughout China, in many hotels and especially hostels, you will be able to find Chinese with good English skills. You might really want to meet them.
Chinese food in Beijing: Try rabbit head or scorpions on a stick
- I needed some time until I dared to go by myself into a local Chinese restaurant without any English-speaking staff, no pictures on the menu and many people around me. Backpacking around China, I had to adapt to a different world. While backpacking China, I tried a lot of food. Sometimes, I didn’t have a clue, what I was eating. And I cannot say, that I liked the taste always a lot. For sure, everything, that I ate in China, was completely different from the food in European Chinese restaurants.
- Some was good. For example, I really liked the Peking duck in a slightly better restaurant around Ghost street. Other dishes were not my style. I did not want to try the rabbit head, that I got offered in Chengdu. Also scorpions on a stick were not my style. You were able to get them on the popular Dong’anmen Night Market in Beijing. They are still alive impaled on a stick while waiting for a hungry Chinese. Watching this really makes you want to become a vegetarian for life. A thought, that I had very often in China.
- I definitely had a lot of noodles and noodle soup during my backpacking trip around China. Noodles were easy to order and everywhere available. I just had to ignore the Chinese people laughing about my way to eat with chopsticks. I got better after a while.
- But I have to admit, that after some weeks, I sometimes was more than happy to eat in American fast food chains once in a while. I had usually rejected and ignored these fast food restaurants during my whole trip across Southeast Asia. But in China, I felt, that it was a great relatively cheap option sometimes.
The Palace Museum in Beijing: Saving money with a student ID
- Just for fun and in case, I had gotten myself two months before my trip to China a fake student ID in Thailand on Khao Sun Road in Bangkok, valid for a year. I’m not saying, that this is the morally perfect way to act. But many travelers on a backpacking trip are on a very tight budget. A lot of things wouldn’t become possible with a few little tricks. China’s sights are not really cheap. And this fake student ID saved me seriously a lot of money in China – also at the entrance of the Forbidden City, the Palace Museum, in Beijing.
- If you are a student anyway, get yourself an international student ID before you start backpacking China. You probably pay half of the entry prices at every sight. Also at the Palace Museum in Beijing. It is the place to visit, although it is just a half authentic experience. The Palace Museum had been renovated. It is in a perfect condition. Still a nice background for a lot of colorful holiday pictures among hundreds of visitors each day.
Beijing: Mao comes out of a freezer every morning
- One of the things, that I really wanted to do in Beijing was to visit Mao. His body is lying in a Mausoleum – the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall – on Tian’anmen Square and gets raised out of a freezer every morning. This way, hundreds of Chinese can watch him behind a glass showcase every day. There was a massive queue on the square. Luckily, the queue was moving fast. It just took a few minutes until we were able to get a glimpse of Mao – for free. He looked like a wax figure. Some Chinese brought him flowers. There was no way to stop and look more carefully at him. I was tempted to take pictures of the whole action. But it was not allowed.
- The Chairman Mao Memorial Hall is open Tuesdays to Sundays 7am till noon. The baggage storage costs 10 Yuan. We knew before, that we had to leave our bags either at our hostel or at the office.
Mutianyu: Climbing the Great Wall
- There is one thing, that everyone has to do while backpacking China: Climbing the Great Wall. It belongs to the Unesco World Heritage. And of course, you have to pay for it. There are several places with access to the Great Wall – with different levels of mass tourism around. We went to the Mutianyu section of the wall. It is one of the most popular sections of the Great Wall. Probably not as busy as Badaling, but still well equipped with a cable car and a lot of souvenir shops.
- The great advantage: Mutianyu is easy to reach by public transport from Dongzhimen bus station in Beijing. You don’t have to spent a lot of money on a tour to get there. You can easily go there by yourself and save money. Take the bus 916 Express or 916 to Huairou North Avenue (Huairou Beidajie). We had to get off the bus in Huairou and shared a minibus with a bunch of travelers from there to the Mutianyu section of the wall. The minibuses were already waiting. We had to bargain a bit. But with a few people, you should be able to get a fair price.
- Find more information here about going directly from Dongzhimen’s bus station to Mutianyu in the morning by bus 867.
- The Great Wall in Mutianyu was well restored. And it was interesting to walk a few hundred meters to each side. Yes, we definitely shared the experience with other tourists, but we enjoyed it. The fascination to be on the Great Wall is still there.
Fake brand paradise: Clothes at the Silk Market in Beijing
- I enjoyed shopping at the Silk Market in Beijing while backpacking China. Busloads of people get driven there for cheap and fake brand shopping on six storeys. I don’t know, if the brand was a fake, but I seriously managed to get a very good waterproof Jack Wolfskin outdoor jacket for around 5 US-Dollars. I had to bargain hard and nearly left the shop before the saleswomen offered me the price. At the Silk Market, they are obviously able to sell some of the stuff very cheap. I also got some cheap chucks, but they unfortunately broke two weeks later.
- Find information about shopping in Beijing.
Public school holidays in China: No train tickets
- After a few days, we wanted to escape the mega city of Beijing. It was not that easy. We had underestimated the meaning of the public school holidays in China, where train tickets can be sold out for weeks in advance. Instead of the train, we had to take the bus to Pinyao on our backpacking trip around China. And we were super lucky to get a ticket at all. It took us hours to find the right bus station with clueless helpful strangers sending us to totally wrong directions. We celebrated our success with noodles and beers at a street kitchen before we went on the night bus to Pinyao.
- I found this page helpful to get general information about public transport in China. Get information about train schedules here.
- The bus ride from Beijing to Pinyao on a sleeper bus had been interesting. Sleeper busses are quite common in Asia. You have beds instead of seats. Bunk beds. So I had a good sleep while the driver drove 150 kilometers per hour on the highway in a risky way overtaking the other cars. My brother didn’t dare once to close his eyes. And because the bus driver was driving so fast, we arrived in the middle of the night at Pinyao – much earlier than we had expected. Well, we didn’t exactly arrive in Pinyao. What we didn’t know, was, that the bus was stopping directly on the highway close to the exit to Pinyao. In Europe, it is pretty much illegal to walk on highways or down time highway exits. And also in China, we were not so happy about this new experience. We protested. We didn’t want to get off the bus and to walk on the highway. But the driver left us exactly two options: Leaving the bus or going to the next destination. We took our backpacks. First, we walked on the side of the highway to the exit. It was just a few kilometers to Pinyao. There were no cars on the street, no taxis. Just us and a few scary barking dogs.
2. Pinyao: Big contrast between old and new town
- The historical center of Pinyao was nicely set up for tourists. There were restaurants and a great number of souvenir shops. The whole old town was really nice and a pleasure for our eyes – old and authentic. There was a lot to discover. Also, that the toilets of cheap restaurants are often not much more than open air wholes in the ground in the courtyards or gardens. Some of the toilets were interesting with some planks to put your feed on and a paper wall to protect you from the other customers’ views.
- As soon as you rent bicycles to get out of the town center of Pinyao, you can see a lot of gray buildings. The atmosphere was different. No romance in the air. Not at all. On our bicycles, We had to pass multilane streets to get further into the countryside. To see the houses there was a big contrast to the nicely set up touristy town center of Pinyao. You could see and feel poverty. And in between some children, that were waving at us in a very friendly way.
3. Luoyang: Visit the Longmen Caves
- Backpacking China was more stressful than we had thought. By train, we went from Pinyao on to Luoyang. First thing, that we learnt using public transport: It is not easy to buy a train ticket in China. It makes sense to carry a guidebook with all the towns in China printed in Chinese letters. Take a pen and paper to communicate with the staff of the ticket counter at the train station about departure and arrival times of trains as well as ticket prices. Take time. Queues are always long.
- We managed somehow to buy a ticket at the train station in Pinyao. This time, we had to buy a third class ticket without a seat. No other train tickets were available because of the Chinese holidays. We thought, that we can probably just sit on the ground of the train. We still had some German ICEs in mind. We had no clue.
- The train ride started like a survival trip. We hadn’t expect the train being completely packed with people. Chinese men were constantly spitting on the ground. We didn’t even find a place to stand properly. It was horrible. So, we voluntarily upgraded ourselves to the board restaurant. Of course, that was not for free. To be able to sit and to lay our heads down on the table, we had to pay 40 Yuan for some shit food like cold shrink-wrapped chicken legs – every few hours. But everything was better than to stand for 12 hours cramped between spitting Chinese men.
Longmen Caves in Luoyang: Authentic old town and world heritage
- We were more than happy, when we arrived in Luoyang. We liked the historic old town, that was filled with much more authentic life than in Pinyao. Not just tourists walking between the souvenir shops. The main reason, why we went to Luoyang was to see the Longmen caves, which belong to the Unesco world heritage since 2000.
- Well, it was alright. We enjoyed it walking around the impressive cave area, having some green tea ice cream, melon sticks and posing for some selfies with Chinese tourists. One girl was extremely exited and nervous, when she bravely came over to us and said, that we were the first foreigners, that she saw in her life. We did her the favor to take a picture together with her.
4. Xian – A mega city and home of the Terra-cotta Army
- Xian was a lively city with quite a few sights to discover. Especially the Terracotta Army is a must on every backpacking trip around China. We passed shopping malls, designer boutiques, elegant hotels, apple stores (where we didn’t see any bargains in comparison to European prices) and finally the Muslim quarter, a colorful mix of souvenir stalls, old mosques, palaces and food places. Old women with head scarfs were offering kebabs and nuts. It is also a place to buy fake Calvin Klein underwear and maybe backpacks – but at far worse prices than in the bis outlet store complexes in Beijing. I had the association of Xian being a big colorful monster hidden in smog.
By public bus to the Terra-cotta Army
- It is easy to get to the Terracotta Army by public transport from Xian. From the east square of the railway station in Xian, we took tourism bus number 5 (306). Another estimated million of Chinese tourists had the same idea to go there. There was a queue, when we arrived at the bus stop, but everything was well-organized. The Chinese were queuing politely and there were constantly buses coming to cope with the masses of tourists. The journey takes about one hour. The bus costs is 7 Yuan per person. If you are backpacking China on a budget, you won’t find any cheaper option to get there.
- The army itself, consisting of tthousands of well-preserved life-size Terracotta Soldiers, discovered in 1974 was seriously impressive. The warriors being part of the Unesco world heritage since 1987 are presented in a big hall. We looked into the soldiers fine carved faces, their suits of armor. We were overwhelmed and spend almost two hours in the big complex.
Xian: Public toilets without doors
- One of the more unusual things for western travelers: The public toilets at the train station in Xian. The thing, that I really had to get used to was, that there were no doors in front of the toilets. So, in the ladies bathroom, I had to walk past a few open cubicles with women peeing and doing poo until I found an empty cubicle for myself. Right. I had to adjust to the locals. No choice.
5. The holy Hua Shan Mountain
- The Hua Shan is one of China’s holy mountains. And you can get there from Xian by public transport. We took the tourism bus line 1 from Xian Railway Station at 8 am. The ticket costs around 22 Yuan. The bus ride took around three hours. We got very helpful information about transport and tourist sights in general from the very helpful tourist information close to the Muslim quarter in Xian, which also provides maps.
- It was foggy and rainy, when we took the bus from the railway station. Well, it is just a mountain, but it was still quite expensive to get up there including transport and all entrance fees. Again, you save a lot of money with a valid international student card. I had to realize, that in China, you even pay an entrance fee for mountains. At least, if it is a popular destination.
- Chinese tourists were touching curiously our rain coats while we were queuing for two hours for the cable car up to the Hua Shan Mountain. We finally went up to breathtaking heights, but basically just watched fog and rain. With a lot of other Chinese tourists, we swarmed around the peak, taking pictures of the fog. And got photographed by Chinese tourists, before we climbed down the Soldiers trail. Steep steps. 1500 meters downhill in the rain. Some girls were there walking up on high heels wearing small bags in their hands. I seriously hoped, that they would survive the trip, while I was afraid to fall down every minute.
- I can just recommend to walk up the Hua Shan Mountain, if the sun is shining. If you really want to be part of the tourist circus at all. But the experience probably was to see the tourist circus.
6. Chengdu: Between Mao statue, shops and Pandas
- I continued my backpacking trip from Xian to Chengdu as a solo female traveler by train. Chengdu was a massive city. In the city center, I was impressed by the Mao statue next to the Starbucks café, Prada and Gucci shops and giant buildings. Couples doing social dances at public squares and in parks. There was a shopping street especially for Tibetan monks. The old quarter is again full of souvenir shops and small food stalls.
- In Chengdu, I stayed in the Panda Hostel. It’s a good spot to meet nice fellow travelers. Especially in China, I enjoyed meeting some western travelers from time to time. I had often spent a few days not talking a lot because of my lacking Chinese language skills.
A great day at the Panda Breeding Research Base Chengdu
- But one of the highlights of backpacking China was my visit at the Panda Breeding Research Base. I cannot remember, that I had seen so many Pandas before. Chewing on bamboo leaves in their green environments. It touched me to watch these cute animals. I went there early in the morning by public bus. I cannot judge, if the Pandas like the public attention or how good the care is. Usually, I also don’t like zoos, but I enjoyed to see the Pandas very much.
- Get more information about the Panda Breeding Research Base including ticket prices and transport.
7. Kangding: The gateway to the Tagong highlands.
- From Chengdu, I went to Kangding, the gateway to the Tagong highlands. While backpacking China, I just spent the night there. I stayed in a cheap small hotel in the city center, where I met two students from New Zealand and England, both studying the Chinese language. They became my travel mates for the following days.Kangding was already surrounded by impressive mountains with snowy peaks. The air was fresh. The Buddhist temple colorful. It was interesting to discover the open air markets, where people sold raw meat, fruit and vegetables. It is for sure a place to experience authentic Chinese lifestyle.
Chinese tourist visa extension in Kangding at a PSB office
- In Kangding, I extended my four weeks Chinese tourist visa for another four weeks in the public security bureau – PSB office. You can find many PSB offices around China. If you want to extend your tourist visa, you need to go there. Travelers told me, that the service in small towns is often quicker than for example in Beijing. It took me really just a few minutes in Kangding to get my visa extended. But I had to answer a few questions about my travels and also about my job, my brother’s and my parent’s jobs. China is such a big country. I wasn’t able to travel within a month to travel all the places, I wanted to. That was, why I needed to extend my visa. For sure, China has not been so far my favorite country in the world, but probably the most challenging so far in Asia. And I wanted to use the chance to see as much as possible of it on my backpacking trip around China.
8. Tagong: Altitude sickness 4000 meters above sea level
- Tagong was my absolute highlight while backpacking China. Seriously, that place is magic. Tagong is located close to the Tibetan border. It is actually Tibetan. I was looking so much forward to go there. The problem was just that, when we arrived at Tagong, around 4000 meters above sea level, I fainted immediately after I had stepped out of the car. I just fall over. I had completely underestimated the height. Probably, I should have stayed much longer in Kangding to adjust better to the differences in height. I got signs of altitude sickness. Just because the locals are driving up and down without any problems, it doesn’t mean, that you are capable to do the same.
- To travel on to the Tagong grasslands, we had found a driver at a public square. Everyone in Kangding seems to know, where to meet drivers to the Tagong grasslands. We had just asked in our hotel for directions. It was pretty easy. The driver drove us in his car up to the mountain village of Tagong. Driving up there and back on a daily basis was his job.
- Being sick in Tagong, I completely forgot, that I carried medication with me in my emergency set. I didn’t also think about the danger of that sickness. My travel mates helped me to move to a guesthouse: Jya Drolma and Gayla’s Guesthouse. The owners said, that a lot of travelers are not able to cope well with the height and the thin air and that I should just move slowly and carefully. They prepared a salty tea made out of yak butter for me. Very friendly of them, but it tasted horrible.
- The following two days, I walked around like an alien, moved slowly. I had the feeling not to be able to breathe properly. I was exhausted after a few meters of walk and got a headache. Still, I didn’t want to leave. I felt, that the place was special. I wanted to experience it. It was all a bit more expensive up there, the guesthouses, the food in the tourist restaurants, which served yak burgers.
Tagong: Feeling Tibetan lifestyle
- Tagong felt like being a gate to a different world. We were close to the Tibetan border. There were Buddhist monks around, a colorful monastery. Some white pagodas. Green hills, yaks, small villages. The sky was endlessly blue. It got really cold as soon as the sun set. Colorful Buddhist flags were hanging around everywhere. The houses were built in a Tibetan style. Even the horses were decorated with Tibetan colors. The people looked different from the Chinese, the men were often wearing long hair. The traditional fashion was colorful.
- In my impression, it was not China. Some people didn’t even speak Chinese, just Tibetan. I had realized before, that there were multilingual Tibetans in Kangding. Also Tibetans, that were able to speak English very well. Much better than many Chinese.
9. Hiking from Tagong to Shamalong village:
- Tagong was fascinating. Two days after I started to suffer from altitude sickness, I felt a lot better. I was ready to discover more of the area. We went on a hike to a monastery close to Shamalong Village. It was a trip through complete loneliness and silence. Just the sun was accompanying us.
- When we arrived in a monastery, the monks dressed in dark red clothes were playing badminton, were busy with some stuff. Some greeted us. They were all speaking Tibetan. We all couldn’t do more than to smile at each other. But we were allowed to have a look into the colorful rooms of the monastery.
A sky burial site up the hill
- At the Shamalong village, we saw colorful decorated stone houses. There were millions of flags. And a sky burial site up the hill, where dead bodies get hung up to get eaten by the vultures. We didn’t see any bodies and haven’t seen a sky burial either. I wouldn’t have liked it to disturb a ritual like that anyway. But there were bones lying around. It was a bit gloomy even while the sun was shining with full power. Well, it was just different from our own cultural background.
- We had to leave to get back to Tagong before the sun set. It was a bit late already. We had underestimated our hiking speed. So we tried to stop a car to get a ride. Of course, there was not much traffic. Two cars passed by within one hour. First, we went with a tractor, than in a car with two Tibetan guys, that brought us directly to our guesthouse. Happy helpful people everywhere.
- Read more about Tagong’s monks in the NY Times.
10. On the road to Xiancheng and Shangri-La
- To get to Shangri-La, I took a bus from Kangding through rural and remote areas with a stop in Xiancheng. The complete trip to Shangri-La took two days. Days without any fellow travelers. Days without much verbal communication. During the first 16-hours-bus-trip to, a lot of Chinese men were smoking inside the bus. The streets were bad, so that I got nearly sick during the bus ride. Maybe also, because I was hardly able to stand the fact, that some other passengers were constantly vomiting into some plastic bags. The bus was speeding on the street close to the edge. The mountain scenery was beautiful. Apart from the wrecks of cars and trucks, that were lying at the slopes.
Toilet stop at a Tibetan style roadhouse: No doors
- On the bus trip from Kangding to Xiancheng, we stopped at a slightly run down Tibetan style roadhouse in the middle of nowhere. Time for a toilet stop. I had already been used to the lacking privacy in public bathrooms. But in that roadhouse, it was worse. No toilet doors again. The ladies were peeing in a row into a drain, separated by small walls, so that everything was running downhill and the last person in the row could see everything, the first person had done. Still, that was luxury. The following toilet stop was just at an open air area in the mountains. No trees around. Nothing to hide yourself. Everything took place in public. I walked behind the bus like the other women. No choice.
At the checkpoint: Policemen asked for my passport
- Still on the road to Xiancheng, we stopped at a kind of checkpoint, where policemen wanted me to get off the bus and asked me to show my passport. They just asked me, the only western traveler in the bus. They asked questions about my journey, where I wanted to go and why. I made a few compliments about beautiful China is and how fascinating the landscape and the Chinese hospitality is. The policemen looked at me and finally politely handed me back my passport. I knew, that the situation between the government and the Tibetan population in China is difficult. There are regular protests. I heart local Tibetans in Kangding complaining about being treated rude by officials and policemen. And that the government has tried to make more Han Chinese settle in the Tibetan areas (inside and outside of Tibet) to make these areas resemble mainstream Chinese society. Why the checkpoint? Maybe the government is interested to know, who is moving where and why in these areas. No one told me the reason.
A night in a Tibetan guesthouse in Xiancheng
- I was happy, when I arrived around 10 pm in Xiancheng. I needed to get a connecting bus to Shangri-La from there in the morning. It was already dark and I walked around the village to find a Tibetan guesthouse, that was recommended in the Lonely Planet. I really hoped to still be able to check in for the night. It was late. People on the street helped me to find that house. I wouldn’t have been able to find the address by myself. I was the only guest in that hostel and had a dorm room completely to myself. The guesthouse owners were extremely friendly and still offered me some food, before I went to sleep in a beautifully decorated Tibetan style room. I was happy to be by myself again. There was no one getting sick around me anymore. Silence.
Begging for a bus ticket from Xiancheng to Shangri-La
- The next shock came the next morning, when I wanted to buy a bus ticket to Shangri-La. When I asked at the station for a ticket, the lady working there just closed the whole counter in front of my eyes without speaking to me. No counter, no bus ticket. In that moment, I was close to tears. Later I understood, that the tickets for the bus to Shangri-La had been sold out for that day. And the lady was probably just not able to make it clear to me. But because of situations like this, I call backpacking China a little challenge. Sometimes, you have to be strong and creative being all by yourself in a stupid situation.
- I really didn’t want to spend another day in Xiancheng. So I directly went to the bus driver on the bus to Shangri-La, a lovely Tibetan guy, who spoke some English. I begged to let me sit on the floor in the bus on the way to Shangri-La. He was cool. He took my backpack and asked me to wait in front of the bus station, so that he could pick me up there after the bus had left. I was really happy. Not knowing, that 15 more people were already waiting there. They all had to fit into the already full bus.
Chinese passengers vomitting on the bus floor – and chicken feed for lunch
- So I spend the following ten hours squeezed between Chinese farmers, who smelled like hard work with animals. The bus was in a bad condition. A lady and her child were both getting sick next to me. A Chinese man vomited on the floor of the bus. It smelled really bad. A fellow passenger offered me some chicken feed for lunch. I refused politely pretending that I’m already full. The truth was, that I was nearly starving, but only the idea of eating chicken feed made me feel nervous.
11. Shangri-La: Between tourist world and lively markets
- The old town of Shangri-La was a big disappointment. After my experiences of the days before, I wasn’t ale to cope with the artificially created tourist world full of souvenir shops. It was raining. The town wasn’t busy. I had met a Taiwanese girl at the bus station, who recommended a hostel to me. It was right in the town center, but horrible. The shower was cold. And the roof was leaking, so that the rain came into the room at night. The following morning I left and checked in into Ann’s hostel. The place was much better with clean warm rooms and a lot more travelers around. I went for dinner and beers with some Spanish and some Israeli travelers – happy about English-speaking company.
- But of course, turtle hill with a large golden prayer wheel on top is worth a visit. Same with the market in the new part of the town. I spent hours there watching people shopping. I saw raw meat at the tables, flowers, spices and vegetables for sale. Dogs were eating leftovers at the floor, men and women in traditional clothes eating lunch at tables. I went through an open air billiard area, saw people selling turtles. There was also a cabinet full of bizarre curiosities, which people were able to admire for an entrance fee. There is always more to discover in Chinese towns than just the historic old quarters set up for tourism.
12. Hiking around Tiger Leaping Gorge: A must!
- While backpacking China, the Tiger Leaping Gorge is a must see on many traveler’s schedules. It is manageable to do the hike through the Tiger Leaping Gorge in the Chinese province of Yunnan in two days. If you start early and are really fit, you can probably even do it in one day. Unfortunately, it was noon already, when I started the hike. When I went there from Shangri-La by bus, it was raining. It was probably not the same breathtaking view than on sunny days. But the whole experience and the hike was great.
Arrival by bus from Shangri-La: Storing luggage at Tina’s Guesthouse
- I went to the Tiger Leaping Gorge by public bus from Shangri-La. The guesthouses in Shangri-La can give information about public transport to the Tiger Leaping Gorge. The bus driver left me out at the entrance of the Gorge. It makes sense to ask the bus driver for this service. Otherwise, you probably won’t understand, where to leave the bus. At Tina’s Guesthouse, I was able to store my big luggage for a small fee. They had organized it that way, that you can do the hike with a daypack. A minibus collects the hikers every evening at the other end of the hiking trail and offers an opportunity to collect your luggage at Tina’s Guesthouse again. Great service. And it works. If you don’t want to go on the hike on your own, you might be able to meet other travelers at Tina’s Guesthouse. But even if not, hiking by yourself can always give you mental strength. I learned to enjoy doing stuff like that by myself and to free my mind of thoughts and worries.
Tiger Leaping Gorge: Expensive water, cheap Marijuana
- Of course, you have to pay to see the Tiger Leaping Gorge. It’s China. Nature is just for free as long as no one is interested in it. They collect an entrance fee at the gate. But the views were great. Some local women had also decided to charge entrance fees for the “viewing platforms”. On the way, we also got offered chocolate snacks like “snickers” for high prices and water for even higher prices. Much lower were the prices for Marijuana, that probably get grown in that area.
Tiger Leaping Gorge: Happy to stay the night at Tea Horse Guesthouse
- I needed much more time for the hike trough the Tiger Leaping Gorge than I had thought. So I was happy to arrive after five hours in the Tea Horse Guesthouse. I decided to rest there for the night. It was a basic accommodation with shower and toilet outside the house. There were seven more guests from Israel, France, Poland and Australia staying there. I had already met most of them on the way before. We had our dinner in the common room together. We chatted about life and Chinese abortion hospitals. We were all irritated about the advertisements about abortion clinics on TV and in the subway equalizing abortion with contraception. It could have to do with Chinese one-child-policy. But that is just speculation.
Road to Shangri-La blocked by big rocks
- But we all finally made it to end of the Tiger Leaping Gorge. On the way back to Tina’s Guesthouse, we saw the result of nature’s power. The road was blocked by hundreds of big rocks, that had fallen on the street. We had to get off the bus and climb over the rocks. Another bus collected us on the other side, so that we were able to move on. The bus went on to Lijang.
13. Lijang: History, karaoke bars and souvenir shops
- Lijang is a place packed with karaoke bars, party places, restaurants and souvenir shops squeezed into a beautiful historical town. It’s a party place and complete tourist destination. Still, it is beautiful and there are also small streets to discover away from the crowds. I stayed at the Mama Naxi Hostel. It is a very welcoming place full of international travelers backpacking China. Common meals are offered in the evenings.
- It is very interesting to see, that not every traveler is taking the back routes through China. In China, I thought a few times to be nearly the only one backpacking. That is wrong. There are travelers backpacking around China, but many prefer to stay among other travelers and tourists. You can meet them very concentrated in the popular tourist spots. And right, the atmosphere among other tourists might be sometimes more relaxed for a western traveler in China. But I still don’t want to miss the experience of not having met a single western traveler for days.
14. Dali: On a bicycle tour around the countryside
- I loved being in Dali on my backpacking trip around China. I liked trying the very cheap vegetarian buffet in the Buddhist monastery, riding with my bicycle across the countryside. The sun was back again. And I enjoyed the fascinating landscape. I like the small placed in China so much more than the big cities. I was able to breathe better without the smog. I liked the slow pace and the lively atmosphere. I walked across the markets. I saw young people selling pieces of art. There were many galleries and interesting shops and cafés. The houses were small and there was grass growing on some roofs. It is fun.
Families with many kids: China has skipped one-child-policy in 2015
- With my bicycle, I did a big tour through the countryside around Dali, passing fields and the Er Hai Lake, seeing village architecture and corn drying on public streets. I highly recommend to get to know the area this way and get some amazing pictures to save in your mind while backpacking China. There were people fishing and hard-working farmers on the fields, that waved back in a shy and friendly way, when I greeted them. May families seemed to have more than one child. Meanwhile, women are allowed to have two children. China had skipped its one-child-policy in 2015. The new law took effect in January 2016.
- Read more about the new second-child-policy on CNN:
15. Kunming: Massive hairy spiders on the market
- Kunming was probably the first big city in China, that I really liked on my backpacking trip around China. I spent the evening on the roof terrace of my hostel in the middle of Kunming. Colorful lights around me. I was still impressed by all the animals, that I had discovered on the markets. Massive hairy spiders in plexiglass boxes. Turtles as small as my finger nails. Dogs in cages waiting for new owners. By the way, I haven’t anywhere seen dog meat in restaurants. Probably, I haven’t realize it. But the only time, that I realized, that dog meat got offered as a specialty in restaurants, was in Vietnam.
Kunming: Defaced men singing love songs for money
- For the first time in China, I realized in Kunming, how many people with physical disabilities have to manage their lives. Badly defaced men were singing love songs in the streets for money. Men without legs drive through the city on self-made carriages trying to sell flowers to couples. There were also small children trying to sell roses – guarded by their parents from a distance.
- Kunming is a place to discover Chinese reality. In my opinion, it is worth a visit. But if you are on a sightseeing tour across the country, there is probably no need for an extended stay in Kunming.
16. Guilin: Old architecture
- On my backpacking trip around China, I went by night train from Kunming to Guilin. Well, I thought, I would have arrived at the main train station. So I was a bit disappointed to see a rather gray city, when I got off the train. It took me half an hour to find out, that the train had stopped at the northern station of Guilin. Not at the main station. I was ten kilometers out of the historical town center. So I had to take a bus into town. The town itself? Nice. But not the place to hang around for very long on a backpacking tour around China. It’s pretty much the place to start a trip to Yangshuo.
Lost in Guilin: About tears and helpful strangers
- From Guillin, I wanted to move on to Yangshuo. By bus. It was hot. I had to carry my backpack. And I couldn’t find the right bus to the long distance bus station. Chinese people were sending me into wrong directions. My time was running. I was exhausted. I finally sat down on the walkway and started to cry. I didn’t want to, but I just couldn’t help. I was tired, fed up and I was angry, that I didn’t understand anything. After a while, a young English-speaking guy rescued me. He almost took my hand and brought me in person to the right bus. I was really thankful about his help. And I was a bit ashamed, that I had cried in public. But well, I didn’t have a home around the corner, where I could have left my emotions.
17. Yangshuo: Between limestone mountains and souvenir stalls
- Yangshuo was full of cheap bars with bad dance music, overpriced restaurants and souvenir stalls in front of an overwhelmingly beautiful scenery of Limestone mountains. Yangshuo gave me comfort. I knew, how to act in tourist places. It was great to be able to rent a bed in a dorm, a bicycle and to discover the place, have some beers with other travelers on the hostel’s roof terrace at night and to chill for a bit.
Yangshuo: Floating boats and basic living conditions
- Together with another traveler from my hostel, I went on a very long bycicle trip around Yangshuo. We saw beautiful scenery and had also the opportunity to go swimming at the “secret beach”. We saw hundreds of floating boats with tourists between the limestone formations on the river. We even crossed the water on a bamboo raft to continue our trip. And we also saw a lot of people living in very basic conditions even in the tourist wonderworld of Yangshuo. There were farmers in basic huts living with almost nothing. We looked into a small hut. There was a TV running in front of the sparse stone wall. One or two chairs. Not always very clean. No glass in the windows. There was something boiling in a big pot on a fire pit outside the house. Many Chinese live of less than a US-Dollar per day.
Lost in Yangshuo: By bicycle on the highway
- On our bicycle tour around Yangshuo, we totally forgot about time. It became dark. And at some point, we were not sure anymore about where we were. We had to admit, that we had gotten lost. We went from one village to the next always asking for the direction to Yangshuo. The people pointed the way. We followed. There were no street lanterns and no lights at our bicycles. I just had a head torch. We were lucky, that nothing happened, when we suddenly found ourselves riding on the highway the last few kilometers back to Yangshuo.
18. Scenery printed on the 20-Yuan-bill in Xiangpeng
- If you want to see the scenery, that it printed on the 20-Yuan-bill, you have to go to Xiangpeng. There is a cheap public bus, that brings you from Yangshuo bus station to the relatively quiet village of Xianpeng. It is not as busy as Yangshuo. There is still space for souvenir stalls. A lot of buildings seemed to be slightly run down. But I enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere a lot. I didn’t have the time, because I just had a few days left on my visa and still had to make it to the border to Mongolia. But it could have been a place to stay a bit longer. In quietness.
19. Experiencing expat life in Shanghai
- In Shanghai, I caught a little glimpse of the expat life. I was able to escape the backpacker world for a while. There was a room in an apartment of a friend’s friend waiting for me in the “French Concession” quarter. He had a job in Shanghai’s booming economic world. While backpacking China, I just got a little taste of what it meant being an expat in Shanghai, when I found myself walking by night along the busy and illuminated Nanjing street. He showed me around the city for two days. We had a drink on a roof top bar between successful and fashionably dressed people overlooking the Huangpu river and the skyline by night. The drink was twice as expensive as two nights in a hostel dormitory.
- I still enjoyed it to get to know this side of life. But I stayed a little skeptical, when we met his colleagues afterwards in expat bars and pubs, that gave me a feeling of suddenly being in Great Britain. Work hard – party hard. That is how it works there. I didn’t see a lot of Chinese there. I knew, that it wasn’t my life anymore and that I really didn’t want to wear a costume at work. Never ever again. But the people were nice, friendly, very polite and interested, not stupid at all, although they were leading a completely different life from mine – at least at the moment.
Shanghai: Grilled birds and future husbands
- Walking around Shanghai, I saw whole grilled birds on sticks, complete with heads and legs in the old – and of course renovated – part of Shanghai, Qibao. I was very impressed by the match maker’s market. In Renmin Park, there were parents looking for future husbands and wives for their grown up daughters and sons. They all had handwritten handouts and pictures of their children, which they had fixed to umbrellas. People could walk by and have a look around to find a good match. I didn’t amuse the parents by taking a picture. I found it seriously strange, that the grown up singles didn’t look for a partner by themselves.
- Of course I also walked around Shanghai’s futuristic skyscrapers by myself. It was an impressive modern world. It’s also a city of contrasts. Not everyone living there has money. Not everyone is successful. Not every house looks new. Not every person rich.
20. Islamic life and shopping centers in Hohot:
- Towards the end of my backpacking trip around China, I went to Hohot in Inner Mongolia by train. But I was still in China. In Hohot, I really had two great days full of friendliness, smiles and helpfulness. Already, when I arrived in Hohot, I felt a special atmosphere between the dust and gray apartment buildings. There were no plants. But a lot of people smiled at me.
- I managed to find the right bus to Anda guesthouse. Not many travelers were staying there. The vibe wasn’t amazing, so I just went on a walking tour to the Great Mosque in the city center.
- I was impressed by the Islamic buildings in Hohot, men with huts, women with head scarfs, colorful archways, shopping malls, stalls with bakery goods and fruits. Neon signs and blinking lights mixed with a touch of the oriental world and enjoyment of life. I liked Hohot. I liked walking around there, also visited a mosque and got asked to take some selfies with some Muslim women. I would definitely recommend checking out this part of the country while backpacking China. I didn’t even know before backpacking China, that this Muslim part of China exists
- In the foreign language bookstore, a herd of sales persons tried to care for me. But unfortunately, no one spoke English and no one understood, that I was looking for a guidebook about Mongolia, that I didn’t find. No choice. I had to travel on to Mongolia without a guidebook. It would be probably the first time, that I went to an Asian country without a guidebook. I left the following morning to Erlianhot, on an eight hours bus drive to the border city to Mongolia.
The border crossing from Erlian/Erenhot to Zamin Ud
- To cross the border from China to Mongolia overland, I had to go to Erlian/Erenhot by bus. It was a long bus ride from Hohot to Erlian/Erenhot. I didn’t see a single tree in the countryside. Just steppe. The Chinese guy on the seat next to me was really nice. He offered me crisps and also helped me to carry my backpack at the bus station, when we arrived in Erlian/Erenhot. Unfortunately, we couldn’t speak to each other.
- The bus ride had taken much longer than I had expected. It was already too late to cross the border, when I arrived in Erlian/Erenhot. The border closes around 6 pm. And it was already getting dark outside. I looked probably a bit lost, when I arrived at the bus station. I had no idea, where to go. I had been in so many weird situations in China, that I didn’t even panic about the fact, that it was getting dark and that I had no place to sleep. I had learned to trust in destiny. And in people being good helpful humans. Luckily, I met a very confused American guy, who explained to me the possibilities of the border crossing – either to take a bus to Zamin Ud around noon or to find a seat in a jeep of a tradesman in the morning.
- But first, I needed a bed for the night. A taxi driver was taking me to a cheap run down hostel next to the square, where the jeeps were supposed to leave in the morning. I had to explain with wild gestures, where I wanted to go. To a cheap hotel. He understood somehow. The hotel was crap. There was one room left for me. Without a shower. There was just a tap. No, there was also no shared bathroom in the whole hotel. Hard to believe, but that was, what the staff was explaining to me. I felt into my bed and slept like a stone. Not quite ready for what was expecting me the following day.
Crossing the border from China to Mongolia
- The border crossing from Erlian/Erenhot in China to Zamin Ud in Mongolia hadn’t been easy. Early in the morning, I had gotten a lift in a jeep to cross the border. The hotel staff had told me, where to go and to ask for a ride. Ask and bargain! In Erlian/Erenhot, there is a square, where all the jeeps are lined up. Many people crossing the border are traders. I couldn’t manage to get a ride cheaper than 100 Yuan, although some travel bloggers say, that 50 to 80 Yuan is the normal price. Well I tried. But no way.
In a jeep with three strong Mongolian women
- I had a good feeling going in a jeep with tree strong Mongolian women. We left Erlian/Erenhot around 10 am. But too bad: All foreigners had to wait at the border to pass immigration. Just the Mongolians had been allowed to pass the border quickly. I didn’t understand the problem, but there had also been some Chinese people waiting. I was patient and had sat there for three hours until I got a bit nervous. I wanted to catch the overnight train from Erlian/Erenhot to Ulaanbaatar, which was supposed to leave at 6.20 pm as every day.
- After a few hours, I was carefull asking some officials to please let me pass the border. I already felt a little desperate at that time. And yes, suddenly I was allowed to speak with an English-speaking official. After looking into my passport, he allowed me to pass the border. I had finally left China after seven weeks full of impressions, adventures and pictures of a different world. I was thankful for that experience.
- I had gotten my tourist visa at the Mongolian embassy in Beijing before. If you still need one, there is a Mongolian Embassy in Erlian/Erenhot as well. Turn up early in the morning and you will get your visa at the same day. But be aware: Same day processing is always the most expensive way to get a visa. And the border closes at 6pm.
- Find information about money exchange regulations on the government’s official website.
- Find information about visa application here.
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